The Planet was overpopulated.
Thriving families of rats and roaches were crawling everywhere.
Then an anonymous postcard advised the owners to call in "Bugs" Burger.
"Bugs who?" the restaurant proprietors asked.
Alvin "Bugs" Burger, they soon learned, is a bug man of a different breed. A fourth-generation exterminator and president of Bugs Burger Bug Killers Inc., he has a professional fetish about cockroaches, rats and mice, about other exterminators and about commercial establishments that turn down his services. He'd like to wipe them all out, and except for the pests, have them return as Burger clones espousing his ideas about bug killing, his high standards and ethics.
Waving his black flag for 21 years, Burger has transformed an initial $300 investment into a $12.5-million-a-year commercial exterminating empire that stretches from Miami into 37 states. With a 40 percent annual growth rate, he says his is the nation's largest privately owned pest control service.
Burger boasts that he is the Cadillac of the industry and perhaps he is."He's no Cadillac, he's a Rolls Royce," says Austin Frishman, one of the nation's top entomologists and author of the Cockroach Combat Manual. Like a Cadillac, Burger is bigger and more powerful than most of his competitors and costs four to six times as much.
Burger (it rhymes with merger) has a unique pitch: "I don't just control pests, I eliminate them." He also offers enticing guarantees to back up his pledge that a customer will never see a cockroach, rat or mouse again.
He doesn't get paid until he gets the job done. It took seven months to clean up one high-priced French restaurant, where the rat population was about the most tenacious he's seen. But in just three weeks back in 1972, he rid the Atlanta underground of a brazen cast of thousands, covering a quarter of a mile.
If a patron should spot a bug anywhere in the place -- not necessarily in the soup -- Burger will pick up the tab and invite the customer back for another round on the house even if the vermin were smuggled in.
If a customer should find two or more roach or rodent nests, Burger pledges the next six months' service free. That, he says, rarely happens, as his crews raid the place at the first sign of reinfestation.
In person Burger, although he is intense and hard-driving, is blessed with an ability to know when to stop pushing. A fierce -- but he thinks a nice -- capitalist, he's worked hard to climb to the top. Now he wants to reshape an industry he scorns, but he won't help it directly.
"Why should I help the enemy? No one helped me. This is a free-market society, and competition is determined by one person saying 'I'm going to be better than the next guy' and going out and doing it," Burger says.
Passionate, almost messianic, about his work -- a 12 to 15-hour day spent in several cities is typical -- he expects his employees to meet the same demands, and most of the time they do. "Sure, my men work in the middle of the night and are on call to fly to trouble spots, but they're well paid," he says. Burger's bug killers earn as much as $25,000 a year.
Burger also imposes strict sanitation rules on his customers or the deal is off. If a kitchen isn't properly cleaned, he doesn't hesitate to take it apart and slap on a little sign: Sorry for the mess . Tell-tale red dots are placed strategically throughout the establishment to tell employes what needs to be remedied. Either the place shapes up or it risks losing its contract. Burger doesn't want to tarnish his track record.
Many of Burger's clients swear by him, saying they had recurring bug problems with other national and local exterminators. "He makes his competitors look like a bunch of kids," says Dominique d'Ermo.
Competitors, however, call him a "mastermind self-promoter," are suspicious of his techniques and even his record.
"We're not privy to his sales techniques or procedures, but it's unusual how one operator can accomplish something no one else can if he's operating within the law," says Jefferson Keith, executive director of the National Pest Control Association. "This is a highly regulated industry as restrictions have grown and our ability to perform the service has become increasingly difficult."
Burger's detractors go so far as to suggest that cockroaches can survive his onslaughts. They point to the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans, site of last year's annual convention of the NPCA (of which Burger is not a member), as a prime example. Several conventioneers reported that the creatures were alive and well at the Fairmont, which happens to be a Burger account.
Burger recalls the episode quite well: "There were, I think, 17 complaints in three days about roach and mice sightings. They were phony complaints, but we paid them," he retorts. "I knew there was going to be a problem, so before the convention we had 10 people go through that place with a fine-tooth comb, a division vice president leading the way. We didn't find 10 bugs in the whole place."
The Planet restaurant on Connecticut Avenue didn't need any more convincing. The restaurant was accustomed to promises but not guarantees. It had just been taken for a bundle by George Scarborough, a 33-year-old ex-con who allegedly wrote 159 bad checks on the Planet's account while he was temporary owner and whose legacy was many more vermin than they bargained for. They wouldn't tolerate a replay, so one Saturday night, shortly after repossessing the restaurant, co-owner Diane Dankman and her staff closed an hour early to prepare for BBBK's arrival.
They removed all food from sight, stripped the tables and cabinets and swathed everything else in plastic. Then they waited. The operation, complete with a "swat team" of nine goggled, helmeted and masked technicians, began at 3 a.m. The clean-out resembled a scene out of a science-fiction flick, with harsh lights shining through a wall of pesticides fog and the crew engaged in an elaborate scheme to find and destroy their prey. All sources of air to the creatures were eliminated. By dawn, the score was humans 7, rodents 0. The roaches didn't fare any better.
Three visits later, the Planet, which by this time had a new name (Diane's), a new cuisine (barbecue), and a new sanitation program (a la Burger), was vermin-free but tired.
Preparing for Burger's bug men was almost like getting ready for a visit from a mother-in-law who would be sure to find any speck of dust. The aftermath was also exhausting: three people spent five hours mopping up filmy pesticide residue and putting the place back together.
But would Diane switch if she could get out of her mandatory one-year contract? Dankman says, "No way. It's costing us $7,500 a year and we've lost two days' business, but no one else gives the guarantees, and we haven't seen a rat or roach since Burger got here."
Since he gained a foothold in Washington two years ago, Burger has amassed $1 million worth of business from clients such as Dominique's, Mo & Joe's, both American Cafes, Jean Pierre, the Foundry, Old Ebbitt Grill, Market Inn, O'Donnell's Sea Grill, all the Red Lobsters, a Burger King, Cafe Italia, the Capitol Hyatt Regency and Hecht's department store. In May, Clyde's of Georgetown, Pizzeria Uno and Big Boy signed on. While no shopping malls, hospitals or nursing homes are yet on his local roster, Burger has bigger ideas.
He wants to take on the White House and the Senate and House office buildings. In the trendy spirit of austerity, he says he will do the job free. "We would give them perfection and then they wouldn't get the bad publicity of having the roaches in the White House and the roaches and the mice in the Senate.
"This would help the economy tremendously. It would lower operating costs and it would give some deserving people a job," he says with a deadpan expression.
But what would Burger get out of the deal? "The publicity won't hurt," he admits gallantly.
Too bad Burger wasn't around a few years ago when a freshman congressman vowed not to return to Washington after his first term, complaining, "I could fight apathy. I could fight pork-barrel politics. I could fight the military. But I couldn't fight the damned cockroaches."
No question they're tough to fight. A female cockroach can produce 400,000 descendants in one year, can develop a resistance to pesticides (though Burger adamantly disagrees) and can survive on practically nothing. Yet the risk of having health authorities close a place down because of vermin can be enormous. It can mean losing not only a few days' business, but a reputation as well.
Restaurants, hotels and motels spent a record-breaking $2 billion last year to control the problem, but Burger maintains they didn't get their money's worth. He'll chatter almost endlessly about the reasons.
"The pest control industry is driven by greed. What I hate is the routine policy of taking money from somebody on the pretext that you're going to solve a problem and then you don't.
"Most businesses keep buying rides on a roller coaster of pest control. They'll change exterminators only when the problem gets out of hand," he says. "They don't know there is a means whereby every single roach and rodent that enters a food service facility will be dead within hours, and so will not be able to reproduce or nest within the property."
It would be out of character for Burger to divulge his trade secrets. "They'r worth a fortune and I'm not going to feed the enemy," he says. But the bottom line, according to the Burger doctrine, is the best of everything.
And he says that where his competitors will use $1.25 worth of pesticides for a $40 monthly service charge, he'll typically spend $22. Where competitors will spend 45 minutes on a job, his crew will spend three to five hours.
Burger is hard on other bug chasers as well as potential customers. "The finest restaurants, the most popular places, the five-star hotels," he says, "they've got a problem, but it's not visible and they accept it, which gets me upset. The only thing that prevents me from going to the health department and complaining is my ethics, even though it's a violation of the public's trust, I'm not going to be the one to fink."
Another well-known restaurant wanted BBBK to do a limited job: "To be quite frank with you, I don't care how many roaches my employes see in the kitchen," said the restaurateur. "I just don't want my customers seeing anything in the dining room."
But what we don't see can sometimes hurt us. Cockroaches, mice and rats are a health hazard. It is well-known that roaches carry bacteria that can cause typhoid, dysentery, food poisoning, intestinal and urinary tract infections. But that's not all. Try the "24-hour virus." Mice are suspected of causing baldness, while the excrement from rats may cripple us for life, according to entomologist and author Frishman.
That brings us to the case of Tamara Wollard, a department head for Woodward & Lothrop at Tysons Corner. She was bitten by a rat in October 1979 and has yet to recover fully or return to work. She is suing the shopping center for a cool $10 million on the grounds of gross negligence. Wollard alleges that when she was bitten, the shopping center was spending only $84 a month on pest control for the common areas, and failed to take proper precautions when it became aware of the problem.
Burger was called in as an expert witness on Wollard's behalf: "I found active rat burrows around the outside of the shopping center, directly under the building, and a lot of conditions conducive to the breeding of rats in general," Burger said after his inspection. "If that mall hadn't been looking for the lowest bidder for exterminating and had done something after learning that a problem existed, the whole tragedy could have been prevented."
Hugh Donovan, representing the Lerner Corp., owners of Tysons Corner, refused comment on the case.
Health officials are hard-pressed to police the problem even when the laws are tough. While other jurisdictions require a court order to close a place down, the District of Columbia and Montgomery County can do so on their own accord. But budget cuts have slashed the District's cadre of inspectors from 32 to 13, meaning there is only one for every 230 restaurants.
Four to six months may elapse between checkups, and all but the filthiest eateries may escape with nothing more than a warning notice. Only 100 out of 13,365 inspections resulted in closings in 1980. Although there were nearly 50 percent fewer inspections last year than in 1976, almost as many warnings notices, about 2,500, were issued.
Officials believe that under the 100-point grading system now used by the District and Montgomery County, many food establishments know how to avoid getting trapped. If an inspector saw four roaches on the wall, for example, he might write up the establishment for four points out of 100, despite the clear sign of infestation.
Michael Cooper, president of Kwik-Kill, a relatively new and small local concern, claims to have captured five of Burger's accounts. Why?
"I'm better," Cooper says. "BBBK is good and they know what they're doing. The only difference is that they tear up the kitchens and I get complaints. He also charges a tremendous amount of money; I charge half, but I do the job."
Stouffer's Hotel of Crystal City nearly hired BBBK, then settled on Kwik-Kill. "His program was good, everyone was impressed, and then we waited for the price but that was a turnoff," says Larry LaChance, safety director for Stouffer's. He says Kwik-Kill has eliminated the hotel's mice and roach problems, works at the hotel's convenience and also has developed a sanitation program for employes.
Other competitors are more diverse in their opinions. Some say BBBK technicians have applied for jobs with their companies, disenchanted with the "early bird" hours and "on-call" schedules. But they also think Burger is helping indirectly their own bug-killing businesses, by upgrading both exterminating standards and price.